Earlier this week, Sony released its 256-player, online-only military shooter, MAG. I've been playing since launch day and undermining the world's geopolitical stability as an agent of S.V.E.R. Because I still have some ranks to earn before I can access certain echelons of command, the review won't be coming until early next week. I have, however, put plenty of hours into the game, enough to form some early impressions that I'll share with you here. For those who want something quick and simple: MAG is good so far. Shooting mechanics are solid, battlefields are enjoyably chaotic, and earning experience is satisfying. For those who want to know a bit more, read on.
When you start off in MAG, you have to sign up with one of three private military companies (PMCs). Raven is the Eurocentric technophile team, Valor is stocked with North American military vets, and S.V.E.R. is a hodgepodge of insurgent types from across Asia. The differences among the groups are largely aesthetic, and thus far, S.V.E.R. seems to be the most well represented of the three, with Valor close behind. Factions compete in a global shadow war in a few different match types. If one faction dominates a match type, it can earn contract rewards that bestow bonuses, such as plus-5-percent experience points in that particular match type. These contracts can change hands daily depending on each faction's performance.
There are four different match types, but only one is available to you from the start. Suppression is a 64-player team deathmatch that takes place solely among members of your own faction. There's nothing to do here but kill the other team and hone your weapons skills. If you've been playing any other online shooter recently, the controls will be largely familiar, and the few differences are easy to learn. Suppression matches tend to be on the short side and are generally populated with lower level characters. It's a fine way to earn XP and get the hang of the controls. But these matches are straightforward and don't showcase any of MAG's interesting command chain features.
You can unlock the next few match types very easily, and these introduce you to varying objectives, as well as more diverse battlefields. In Sabotage, the attacking PMC must capture and hold two well-defended points in order to access the third and final capture point. In these 64-player matches, you need to capture or defend whichever point (A or B) is gently pulsing. The pulsing indicates that your squad leader has designated that point as your objective, so any XP earned in that area will count double. This is the incentive that MAG uses to encourage players to stay with their squad, and it's quite effective. Earning XP allows you to unlock new guns, improved abilities, and the right to command a squad of your own.
The barracks screen allows you to choose which specific bonuses you want to unlock and lets you spec your character down certain paths. Assault, marksman, support, and heavy are fairly straightforward categories, but areas like athleticism and close quarters can add interesting twists to your battlefield skills. There's a good amount of customization options, but it can be unclear what you need to purchase in order to unlock more powerful rewards. You only need to spend a certain number of points in each tier to unlock the next one rather than purchase every upgrade in a given tier. Once you figure it out, the interface is easy to understand, and you can undo choices you don't like by earning respect points. You earn these points at a steady rate by playing matches, though it's unclear what affects this rate.
Acquisition is a larger game type that can accommodate 128 players. Assaulting teams try to infiltrate enemy territory, steal a vehicle, and deliver it to a safe evac point. These matches feature bunkers, gates, antiaircraft batteries, and sensor arrays, making the battlefield rich with potential objectives. Bombing a bunker will neutralize a powerful minigun and enemy spawn point, while repairing an antiaircraft battery can keep the enemy from calling in potent air strikes. This can lead to some battlefield confusion, but ideally, the average soldier doesn't need to worry about all that. The squad leader should designate a target, the assumption being that by the time players can become a squad leader, they have a good idea of how the battle should flow. Of course, this isn't always the case, and there's no way to give your squad leader feedback. That is, unless you have a headset.
Any confusion that acquisition may cause is only magnified in domination, the much-touted 256-player battles. In both of these match types, the battlefields are arranged in such a way that only 64 players are concentrated in a given area. You won't see rows of 100 attackers shooting at 100 enemies (this ain't the Revolutionary War), but you will get a sense that you are part of a big conflict. Domination is littered with objectives to destroy and repair. The tactical assists that commanders call in can also have substantial effects. Gas bombs can choke an area with poisonous clouds, while blockades can increase the time between enemy respawns.
Respawning in MAG is cyclical, so your wait time will vary and you will usually spawn at the same time as at least a few teammates. You could be waiting 3 seconds or 17 seconds, depending on when you die. Players are either killed outright or incapacitated and left to be revived or to bleed out. In one match, our squad began telling each other when a respawn time was coming up so they could bleed out and have a quick respawn. This tactic kept more of our squad on the ground at any given time, and it's this kind of communication that MAG hopes to foster.
Whether players will fully embrace that communication remains to be seen and is also dependent on how many PlayStation 3 owners have headsets. I'll be spending the next few days climbing through the ranks, earning my command stripes, and seeing what the view is like from the top in order to write a comprehensive review. Check back early next week for the final verdict.